WASHINGTON DECEMBER 13, 2010 (REUTERS) By Bernd Debusmann - What started out as a small group of activists operating a clearing house for leaked secret documents, WikiLeaks looks like turning into an international grass roots movement that needs no central figure to fight a "data war" in the name of Internet freedom.

It could be a long war, no matter whether Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, remains the world's most prominent anti-secrecy figure or not.

Since November 28, when WikiLeaks began releasing a quarter of a million classified U.S. State Department cables from embassies around the world, there have been several attempts to drive the organization off the Internet and cut its channels for receiving donations. A day after Assange was arrested in London, Internet activists struck back.

While he was in prison, cut off from contact with his organization, computer hackers attacked the websites of MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal which had stopped processing donations for WikiLeaks;, which had banished WikiLeaks from using its rented servers; a Swiss bank and the website of the Swedish prosecutor who had issued an arrest warrant for Assange on charges of sexual misconduct.

"This movement is bigger than Assange," said a comment in one of the dozens of passionate Internet debates on Operation Payback, as the counter-attack was called. Peter LaVenia, a leader of the New York State Green Party, described WikiLeaks as "the most important thing to happen to the cause of democratic rule" since the student revolts of 1968 in the U.S. and Europe. The mood and tone of pro-WikiLeak activists indeed evoke memories of the anti-establishment sentiment of 1968.

Since 2007, when Assange, a 39-year-old ex-hacker, set up WikiLeaks, his organization has been closely identified with him as the indispensable leader. He has described himself as "the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest." But the last few days of "hacktivism" show that even without him, the genie he uncorked could not be stuffed back into the bottle.

"This is cyber guerrilla warfare," said Charles Dodd, a consultant to U.S. government agencies on cyber security. "They attack from the shadows and they have no fear of retaliation. There are no rules of engagement in this kind of emerging warfare."

In the Kalashnikov-carrying kind of guerrilla war, one of the aims is to provoke the government into harsh reactions that generate sympathy for the cause and attract new followers. The American reaction to WikiLeaks' dump of embassy cables seems to have achieved just that.


Politicians from both sides of the spectrum have portrayed him as an arch-villain. Right-wing pundits have called for his assassination. Mike Huckabee, a presidential contender in 2008, says he should be executed. The companies that cut off ties with WikiLeaks denied having caved to pressure from the U.S. government, but that was not the perception abroad.

In Geneva, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed "concern about reports" of pressure on private companies to close down credit lines for WikiLeak donations. "If WikiLeaks has committed any recognizable illegal act, then this should be handled through the legal system," she said, "and not through pressure and intimidation including on third parties."

Particularly not, she might have added, in a country whose Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had waxed lyrical in a speech in January about an Internet free of government interference and the need for American companies not to buckle to any form of censorship. "American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand."

Nice words, well delivered. But the before-and-after WikiLeaks comparison of Clinton statements is stark. The leaks of the cables, many with brutally frank assessments of foreign leaders, were not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests but "an attack on the international community," she said. Clinton did not return to the subject of principled American companies or the national brand.

President Barack Obama has stayed away from the WikiLeaks controversy entirely. But his attorney general, Eric Holder, is trying to put together a legal case that would allow Assange's extradition from Sweden to the United States. It's a hard case to make because officials have yet to answer convincingly the question why WikiLeaks' boss should be tried and not executives of the New York Times, the U.S. newspaper that printed some of the most sensitive leaked correspondence.

Getting Assange, an Australian, into an American court would also be a serious tactical mistake. It would turn him into a free speech martyr at a time disaffected former WikiLeaks staffers are preparing to launch a rival anti-secrecy site. Why? They left because of his high-handed management style and the organization's lack of transparency.

WRAPUP 4-WikiLeaks backers threaten more cyber attacks FROM REUTERS: By William MacLean and Georgina Prodhan

* Amazon too big to target for now; PayPal in view

* Spokesman "Coldblood" says Internet freedom at stake

* Release of U.S. diplomatic cables continues

(Adds latest targets; comments from Putin, U.N.)

LONDON, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Internet activists defied efforts to end their online assaults against institutions seen as enemies of WikiLeaks on Thursday, promising more cyber attacks on targets starting with PayPal.

The campaign to avenge WikiLeaks against those who have obstructed its operations, calling itself Operation Payback, has already temporarily brought down the websites of credit-card giants Visa and MasterCard, and of the Swedish government.

A succession of U.S. institutions has withdrawn services from WikiLeaks after the website published thousands of sometimes embarrassing secret U.S. diplomatic reports that have caused strains between Washington and several allies.

Online retail and web-hosting powerhouse Amazon last week stopped hosting WikiLeaks' website, and on Thursday it briefly became the main target of the pro-WikiLeaks campaigners -- before they admitted it was too big for them, for the moment.

"We cannot attack Amazon, currently. The previous schedule was to do so, but we don't have enough forces," read one message on Twitter.

The activists said they would instead attack PayPal, which has suspended the WikiLeaks account that the organisation had used to collect donations. MasterCard and Visa had also become targets after stopping processing donations.

At 1810 GMT, the websites of PayPal, Amazon -- a key Christmas shopping destination -- MasterCard and Visa all appeared to be functioning normally.

Facebook said it had removed the activists' Operation Payback page on Thursday because it was promoting a distributed denial of service attack -- a form of freezing websites by bombarding them with requests that is illegal in many countries.

The campaign also disappeared briefly from Twitter before reappearing in a different guise. Twitter declined to comment.

In an online letter, Anonymous, a loose-knit group, said its activists were neither vigilantes nor terrorists. It added: "The goal is simple: Win the right to keep the Internet free of any control from any entity, corporation, or government."

Some of the motivation for the cyber campaign appears to stem from anger at the arrest in Britain of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over alleged sex crimes committed in Sweden. He is in jail in London, awaiting an extradition hearing.

Assange said last week he had expected clampdowns in countries such as the United States that championed free speech, and had deliberately picked providers like Amazon to host its data to test that theory.

In Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the arrest of Assange showed the West was hypocritical in its criticism of Russia's record on democracy.

When asked about leaked U.S. diplomatic cables which cast him as Russia's "alpha-dog" ruler of a corrupt bureaucracy, Putin questioned whether the U.S. Foreign Service was a "crystal clean source of information".

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay voiced concern on Thursday at reports of pressure being exerted on private companies to halt financial or Internet services for WikiLeaks.


The campaign is not over from what I've seen, it's still going strong. More people are joining," a spokesman for the pro-WikiLeaks campaign Anonymous calling himself "Coldblood" told BBC Radio 4. The speaker, who had an English accent, said he was aged 22 and was a software engineer.

"Anonymous has targeted mainly companies which have decided for whatever reason not to deal with WikiLeaks. Some of the main targets involve Amazon, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal."

In a statement on Thursday, MasterCard said although there was a limited interruption of some online services, cardholders could continue using cards for transactions worldwide. Its main processing systems were not compromised, the statement said.

The campaigners also claimed responsibility for bringing down Visa Inc's site, which was temporarily unavailable in the United States, but later restored. Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet said the Swedish government's website was down for a short time overnight in the latest apparent attack.

Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, has been hailed as an advocate of free speech by supporters, but now finds himself fighting serious sexual allegations made by two women in Sweden.

Assange will have another court appearance next Tuesday and his supporters assert he is being victimised for his work.


In the Internet Relay chat channel where activists coordinated the attacks, conversations were short and to the point. Participants asked what the target should be and reported progress. Some bemoaned the fact that PayPal's site remained up despite efforts to bring down its transactions server.

"The only thing most of these CEOs understand is the bottom line. You have to hit them in the bank account, or not at all," said one participant called Cancer.

WikiLeaks is continuing to drip-feed cables into the public domain despite the legal woes of its founder.

Those released on Thursday showed U.S. diplomats reporting that the illicit diamond trade in Zimbabwe had led to the murder of thousands, enriched those close to President Robert Mugabe and had been financed in part by the central bank.

Assange's main London lawyer has denied that the WikiLeaks founder ordered the attacks.

(Additional reporting by Patrick Lannin in Stockholm, Ben Deighton in Brussels and Marius Bosch in Johannesburg) (Writing by Keith Weir, William Maclean and Georgina Prodhan; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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